Friday, December 22, 2017

Old School Polish Beer Wars

From Atlas Obscura:

The 1380 Wrocław Beer War was a medieval Bohemian battle royale.
A medieval illumination showing a monk tasting wine or beer, from Li livres dou santé, late 13th century.
If you’ve been to a sporting event—almost any sporting event—then you know that beer and fighting often travel hand in hand. But beer and war? That’s what happened in medieval Wrocław, in western Poland, in 1380.

Wrocław was then the capital of Silesia, a region that corresponds to portions of today’s Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. Silesia’s allegiance shifted throughout the Middle Ages, and in 1327 it severed ties to the Polish crown and joined the Kingdom of Bohemia. Wrocław wouldn’t be considered Polish territory again until 1945.

It was during this period that tensions over beer began. “Beer was a central component of public life,” says Richard W. Unger, historian at the University of British Columbia and author of Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. “It was the drink of parties, like dinners to celebrate guilds, and of public occasions. Besides, people were certainly getting nutrition from it.”

It was very common for town governments to run municipal breweries, Unger explains, and this was even more common in this part of central Europe, where a lack of capital made it hard for private citizens to start the own beer-making operations. “[What we now consider] Poland was very sparsely populated compared with Western Europe, which had more developed urban areas, and it was still mostly a rural economy,” he says.
In Bohemian Wrocław, there was indeed just one institution making beer: the city council, also known as the Rata or Rat. Beer was brewed in the basement right under the Town Hall. “It was from this very beer cellar that the city ran a lucrative beer racket, purveying a popular local brand from the nearby town of Świdnicka (known as Schweidnitz in those days),” writes Garrett Van Reed, an American journalist based in Poland who has written and edited travel guides about the country.

The Rata had exclusive rights to produce and tax the beer, called Piwo Świdnicka,* a name that lives on today in a restaurant in the basement space, by some accounts the oldest eatery in Europe. But by 1380 some Wrocławsters had started to ditch Świdnicka beer for brews made by monks from the nearby island of Ostrów Tumski, literally “Cathedral Island.”...